Speak softly and carry economic gifts

How Japan can deal with Trump unilateralism

Stephen R Nagy

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

20 September 2018

Shinzo Abe is about to enjoy a period of domestic political stability. And he’s going to need it to deal with all the foreign policy headaches the Trump administration is causing, Stephen Nagy writes.

Two decades of economic stagnation and revolving political leadership in Japan have given way to the longest period of political stability since World War Two.

Following the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election on 20 September 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have consolidated his position domestically as the uncontested political leader of Japan’s ruling party allowing him to stay in power until 2021.

The political stability that will come with his re-election as LDP president will be needed to deal with the numerous areas of instability in the international system today.

First and foremost is the Japan-US alliance, which is being tested by the mercurial leadership in the Trump White House. The US is pressuring Japan for a free, fair and reciprocal bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in order to reduce the bilateral trade deficit.

This explains part of Tokyo’s concern with Washington, but even before this, Japan has been worried by many of the Trump administration’s unilateral decisions in the region, such as halting joint South Korea-US military training on the peninsula and accepting the summit with Kim Jung-un in June.

In themselves, these decisions would not be so hard to understand if they were based on a discernible long-term strategy that was communicated to allies and partners alike. The problem is there has been no such strategy.

More on this: Abe’s skilful Trump diplomacy

For example, pushing a bilateral FTA with Tokyo to decrease the bilateral deficit between the two countries is neither necessary nor practical. The deficit can be reduced by Tokyo through the purchase of arms, energy, and some agricultural products which Tokyo has already put on the table, rather than an automobile-for-beef exchange that would not decrease the deficit.

Moreover, in the wake of the US-China trade war, we have seen Washington simultaneously pick trade fights with Japan, Canada, and the European Union. Any coherent strategy to execute a successful trade war with China would more practically be prosecuted by working with allies who share similar concerns about China’s trade practices and the long-term intentions of President Xi Jinping.

As highlighted by Minister Akira Amari at his Brooking’s Institute talk in May, the inconvenient truth for the Trump administration is that staying in the Trans-Pacific Partnership or a modified version of it would have contributed to achieving many of America’s current demands on China.

For Japan (and China), the take-home message is the White House’s trade tactics are not based on economics but potentially transformative geopolitics that may have implications for Japan-US relations.

Here is the conundrum for Abe.

The White House’s behaviour is destabilising many of the post-World War Two institutions, norms and practices that formed the foundation for the Japan-US alliance. At the same time, new 21st century institutions such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are being eschewed for incoherent, short-term political tactics that do not contribute to achieving clear objectives.

For Abe, being openly critical of the lack of consultation may intensify the current instability and make it more difficult for Japan to manage security issues in the region.

More on this: Japan’s ‘Pivot to Asia’

The Abe administration’s response to date has been to refrain from public criticism of the Trump administration, seek clarification on US intentions through consultation, and clarify Japan’s positions and its support for the alliance. This will continue at the leadership level. At the same time, the Japanese government will spare no effort to assess if off-the-cuff comments or tweets have any teeth at the institutional level.

Japan needs to work in concert with the US to deal with a nuclear North Korea, as it is in the front lines of Pyongyang’s short and mid-range conventional and non-conventional missile systems.

Furthermore, the trajectory of North Korea’s development impacts Japan’s security as well. If Pyongyang strengthens relations with China and South Korea through proposed inter-Korean infrastructure, this would be bad news for Japan. The three countries might form an anti-Japanese trifecta, connected through Korean and Belt and Road infrastructure and energised by Russian energy exports. This would leave Japan isolated in the region and subject to the political whims of a Beijing-led grouping.

Without a stable US-Japan alliance buoyed by strong trade relations, Tokyo will be unable to ensure that the evolution of the Korean Peninsula is acceptable to Japan’s long-term interests. This would revive the old fears of the Korean Peninsula being “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.”

The same can be said for the necessity of cooperation in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean. While Japan may today be able to stave off potential incidents related to the Senkaku Islands today, the expansion of China’s naval and merchant fleets will overwhelm Japan’s capacity to push back against lawfare tactics in the future.

More on this: Four questions for the Quad

The expansion of Japan’s strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are important initiatives to send the message to Beijing that Tokyo will work with partners to maintain its national interests. Lobbying extra-regional powers like Britain and France to conduct joint naval exercises as well as Canada and Australia to send naval vessels to the region further strengthens Tokyo’s efforts to enforce international law, and rule-based behaviour by all stakeholders in the region.

Notwithstanding the contributions of the extra-regional powers, it’s the US that has the capacity, experience and security footprint in the region to make a real difference.

Without a robust Japan-US alliance, the new Indo-Pacific concept, the Quad, and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy will have little teeth.

Here again, Abe will have to find ways in his newly strengthened position to inculcate stability and predictability into the Japan-US alliance and his relationship with Trump. He can do this by enhancing cooperation and empowering current members of the Quad but also actively seeking out new partners that can bring their comparative advantages to these nascent institutions.

Clarity concerning US foreign policy towards Japan and the Indo-Pacific is emerging. The ‘America First’ president seems to prioritise economic re-calibration over long-standing comprehensive relations as embodied in the US-Japan Alliance.

Nevertheless, Abe should seek to strengthen the alliance by finding meaningful ways to bolster Japan’s contributions – such as through more joint training and Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. These decrease the US burden and thus are effective ways to placate an US administration that is tethered to a focus on reciprocal relationships in the realm of economics.

Tokyo can and should further its position through a non-confrontational approach with the Trump presidency by finding other ways to mitigate economic disparities, such as purchasing more arms, energy and agricultural products.

Japan’s geographic position, economic weight and close institutional relations with the US at many different levels make Tokyo an indispensable partner. Abe needs to highlight the positive role Japan can play in dealing with the region’s most pressing issues – from North Korea’s nuclear program to an emerging Chinese superpower.

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18 Responses

  1. Fong Jing Seun, Jason says:

    This is what I get from the article. The economic policy of U.S., are putting its priority on herself , which may leave Japan,more or less alone in the region , facing the raising China and the Korean peninsula. Japan now have to seek her ways to strengthen herself, by maintain a robust relationship with U.S., and find more partner for extra-regional power.

    After reading this, I am thinking that, if, Japan can somehow strengthen their relationship with Korea and especially China, then that should be the best outcome. First come out of my mind is why Japan have a bad relationship with China and Korea. The simplest answer would be historical factor. But at this point, a question come to my mind. Why Germany could maintain a good relationship in Europe, while Japan can’t? According to my own knowledge, Japan have long military conflict with China, and the heart of the problem should be the Nanjing Massacre, during the Sino-Japanese War. The violence act during that time is why majority of Chinese citizen hate Japan, they also hate Japan because since the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese officials and school have downplayed the Nanjing Incident, making it less it seems like less on an atrocity then it was. And Korea share the similar relationship. If Japanese Government could officially apologize for the war crime as German did, will it be possible to have a good and close relationship with China and Korea? I think the relation would improve, but less than enough. Since other than the past historic conflict, Japan and China may also have a deep root ideological conflict from the cold war. Moreover, natural resource and territory is also a problem nowaday. And unlike Europe, which the powers are more balance and separate, the power distribution in this region seems to be dominated by China ,Japan and maybe Korea. Which Europe is more like a “competitive market”, while here is like a oligopoly. So Japan seems to have no choice, whether maintain a robust relationship with U.S. or find more partner for extra-regional power as the article said.

    • Shek Tin Lok says:

      I would say it hardly matter if Japan does change their attitude on the world war 2 problem as the Sino-Japan conflict are base on mostly geopolitics.Japan is always a OPFOR for China and Korea. The propaganda of the CPC will use Japan as a strawman to boost their nationalism and stability just like the case of Sweden right now. Japan in the past did apologise a couple of time for their war crime and thats why they have really good relations with SEA countries. Another important thing is that Japan during their economic boom, did provide a lot of help to China such as 0 interest loan and financial aid during their famine time. Due to unknown reason, this part of history is being admit and a narrative of Japan is attempting to revive militarism is always stuck in the mass media of China.

      • kurihara says:

        I agree with both comments on the point of why Japan does not get on so well with their neighbours. The debate on whether if Japan has done enough for its war crimes during the Pacific war is a lengthy debate as I think we all know.

        Though dramatic changes in the region are not to be expected in the short-run, I believe that there are possibilities for change, where compromises can be made.

        International Relations in East Asia is made on premise of the “Rising China” narative. This premise maybe questioned when looked at in the long run when China is in fact facing a make-or-break situation, holding domestic problems such as polution, rapide ageing population, gender disparity, poverty gaps.

        Japan may offer help as a state-led initiative in exchange for a warmer-relationship.

        I have nothing more to support this statment. I would be very grateful if this is taken as ‘Comment’ rather than an argument.

  2. Vladimir Mozebakh says:

    I guess that the article has a very good point that anybody aspiring to understand the situation in the Pacific region must take into consideration. However unstable the policy of the White House might seem, however turbulent and nationally egoistic the US might be concerning the issue of “fair trade agreements”, the US-Japan Alliance is the last thing to be sacrificed to achieve the ends of Trump’s “trade recalibration”. Let me outline the three dimensions: politics, economy, and geopolitics.

    Japan is an utterly important part of the US global safety structure: there are military bases, the Mutual Defence Treaty is in power; however, it is not only the US that needs Japan but also it is Japan that needs the USA. Needless to say that low military expenditures of Japan, with its safety ensured by the US, have once contributed to the economic development of Japan (resulting in an economic miracle), and now, when China has nuclear weapons, when North Korea is (allegedly) able to launch nuclear missiles, Japan has really no option but to rely on the American ‘nuclear umbrella’, taken that nobody is going to allow Japan to possess nuclear weapons.

    Next, it is still economy that matters. The interconnectedness of Japan and the US trade-wise is very strong, and any ‘recalibration’ attempted duly and seriously might bring about a general turmoil in US-Japan trade and might mean some sort of a political suicide for Abe, even if not for Trump. The approach of the US towards the TPP issue, to me personally, does not seem something out of the blue, for Trump has already shown that he is ready to ‘stand out of the crowd’ by implementing discussionable initiatives. For example, his refusal to join the Paris Climate Agreement put the US in one row with Syria that also refrained from joining it.

    Another thing is about geopolitics. Yes, I completely agree that Japan is seeking to reformulate the structures in the Indo-Pacific in order to be able to play a more significant role. That is why Japan had been advocating for TPP before Trump took the US out of it, that is why Japan is now advocating TPP-11. At the same, it is not only Japan that is aspiring to gain as much impetus as possible in the international relations of the Indo-Pacific. Obviously, another player here is China, which is now amidst the trade war with the US. Even though China is a far less respectable actor, taken with huge suspicion with regard to its possible expansionism based on great military power (mostly applicable for the countries that have territorial disputes) and ability to conduct some sort of economic coercion. Still, we also have the two Koreas, and even though a rapprochement in their relations will have a deeply stablising effect on the whole region, such a thaw, as Professor Nagi notes, might pose a risk connected with inter-Korean infrastructure that might be used as a proxy to enhance the capacities of the Silk Road Belt, allow Russia to advance its energy resources in the region and connect China, Koreas, and Europe, leaving Japan far behind.

    Given all that, I think that Abe’s non-confrontational approach is the best option now. It is evident that the US plays a big role in the Indo-Pacific, and just by counting how many times I have used the words ‘US’, ‘USA’, or ‘America’, we get to understand that this country has an instilled position in multiple contexts of the situation in the region. Can Japan afford any instability in the relations with such an ally? No way.

  3. Jessica Bloom says:

    ‘Speak softly’ is a significant phrase when discussing how Japan can deal with Trump unilateralism. It can be confidently acknowledged and stated that the Japan-US alliance is of great importance to both states, and an alliance neither should be willing to lose. However, Trump unilateralism puts this at risk and therefore it falls dependant on Japan to ‘speak softly’ and make the right decisions which will both protect Japan’s own interests and the Japan-US alliance. Whilst the White House’s behaviour is described as being destabilising it must be stated that there are only two more years until the next presidential election and the mid-terms are this year. In the grand scheme of things two years is not too long for there to be a potentially new president and if the Democrats claim a majority in both Houses then it can be argued that that would decrease Trump’s power. Regardless, until then, Japan and the US share some important goals; firstly, to denuclearise North Korea, and, secondly, to stop China emerging as a superpower. I would argue that these two reasons alone – mainly the China reason – are enough for the Japan-US alliance to remain strong, on the condition that Japan ‘speak softly’ on Trump like they have been doing.

  4. Lynnee ML says:

    Much of the recent concern of American voters and the man they elected centers around the state of America, resulting in the rejection of international relationships that aren’t mutually and immediately beneficial for America and it’s citizens in the way they desire. Regarding Japan, this has caused America’s foreign policy to become unpredictable, with no clear goal in mind. If Abe wishes to successfully continue relations with America while the current man is in the White House, he must work towards the appearance of a more clearly bilateral relationship. The importance of Japan’s relationship to America is the strength that Washington provides Tokyo politically and militarily, which will become especially important if South Korean relations with China and North Korea improve, potentially forming an anti-Japan trifecta.

  5. Shek Tin Lok says:

    I think the change of article 9 will decide the Japan-US relationship. If it pass, then Japan can act as a more valuable ally to deal with the rising China as the Trump administration treat Japan as a economic competitor and aim to reduce the trade deficit. If Japan did not pass the article 9 change, they will stuck in a passive state when they try to maintain the balance of power in the North Asia due to the illegal status of the SDF. If Japan can not contribute more on containing the rising China, US may choose to put resource on other ally such as Taiwan who pass another weapon deal just now. Another thing is the problem of Abeconomy start rising as the budget deficit rise and the aging population. The rising tension of US-Japan trade further pressure Abe to work harder on the structural reform of economy. New trade deal between the US and Japan might help to find a way to solve it.

  6. Sheila says:

    Historically, Japan-US alliance has played an important role in calming Indo-Pacific region. This article reminded me the fact that Japan is powerless, I would say, without strong connection with U.S.. However, it also had me realize the possibility that extra-regional powers such as U.K. and France help Japan tackle several issues in the region. Nonetheless, I think strong Japan-US relationship is much needed to ensure the stability in the region considering the influence that US has on Indo-Pacific economy.

    • kurihara says:

      I find it very interesting that the U.K. was raised as a potential partner. U.K. since BREXIT has been undergoing a new policy of looking beyond the EU. So far negotiations with the Commonwealth has not been as succesful.

      East Asia is an important region for the U.K. who seeks to find political and economical partners. Both Japan and China are important partners. However, it is considerably less likely for the U.K. to come into aid for Japan politically, as they cannot risk upsetting Beijing.

      Partnership between the U.K. and China is very likely to grow as U.K. makes proactive cooperation as a non-regional member for the AIIB.

  7. Nagisa says:

    The most impressive part of this article for me was the relation between Japan’s interest and geographic problem. It did not occur to me that the geographical aspect of Japan (apparently that it is isolated island,) becomes the big factor of Japan to be left behind in the region. It is ironical that both Japan and the US are geographically apart from the states which posses regional power. I wonder if the US-Japan alliance really has the possibility to assert against regional power such as inter-Korean infrastructure backed up by Russia. Further, I am concerned that if US-Japan relationship becomes too much formidable, it is going to produce more hostility within the region and end up to generate the similar state of affairs like the cold war in Asia Pacific. So I think Japan should carefully put their best effort to build better relationships not only with the US but also with other nations in the region.

  8. Aki M says:

    Along with historical disputes, I had the impression that the strong relations between the US and Japan are what is causing the tension with China and Korea. I agree, as said in the previous comment, the best solution seems to be having China, Korea, and Japan get along, create peace, and contribute to the further development of the Asia-pacific. What’s making things difficult is that after Japan was defeated in the war, it was supported by especially the US in recovering from the damage and in a sense became a strategic cut-end for the US to step into the politics, trade, whatever big decisions that were made in the region. However, this probably also has another POV, that without the support of the US, Japan will never have experienced an economic boost at all.

    The title, “Speak softly and carry economic gifts” is basically saying Abe needs to carefully think of his attitude towards the US since there is no way out of this situation. I think the issues Japan had with NK before were some factors which momentarily strengthened “bonds” between the US and Japan, but I did not know that the current state of Trump and Kim Jong Un meeting, and eventually the “evolution” of the Korean Peninsula could possibly affect only Japan’s long-term interests. As the author says, “For Abe, being openly critical of the lack of consultation may intensify the current instability and make it more difficult for Japan to manage security issues in the region.” So even if Abe knows there are little to no strategies that support the unilateral acts, he cannot completely rely on the US to go easy on Japan, so all he can do is quietly give gifts, and search for someone new for help.

  9. Tomo Nelson says:

    Japan’s concern over possibly being isolated in the region without the alliance is legitimate, although at the ground level it may have more to do with the lingering pain of historical / ideological conflict with China than its politics. While I do vaguely remember hearing some uncertainty about Japanese foreign policy during President G.W. Bush and even President Obama’s time in office, this is the first time in recent memory that Japan-U.S. relations has become this unpredictable. I do agree that Japan’s best option is to take a more non-confrontational approach, which I think is already its general political approach, at least in spirit. While it may not see it as the most stable power now, the U.S. is a partner than Japan does not want to lose, and I hope the advice in this article finds the right people in some way shape or form.

  10. E.Misawa says:

    I do not know if we should celebrate the Abe’s re-elected on 20th of September and he will suppose to be a Prime Minister until 2021.
    The people are unsatisfied with neither his domestic and foreign policies, and he seems to be confused with which way he should take.
    As a Japanese people, I cannot see where he puts priority most and how he would like to act in complicated international contexts.
    Japan has depended on the U.S. in the field of international relations, and it is not easy to escape from that relationship (it is like a master and a dog relationship) because of a long time. However, Trump has been taken the aggressive attitude toward trade, and he will keep pressuring Japan about the trade. Therefore, Japan has bogged down the relationship with the U.S., and it seems to take the weight on the relationship with China in trade. According to the comment from Prof. Atsushi Kouketsu, a specially appointed professor in Meiji University, the Japanese attitude toward China pointed as “Now Japan-China relation is in close, and the majority of the Japanese people has a positive view for maintaining the friendship with China. However, the Japanese government has unduly depended on the U.S. with the issues of foreign diplomacy. Long-term development of Japan-China relationship will also be examined with the attitude toward historical problems. It will be a significant task after Abe succeeded re-elected that how he makes a more depended peaceful foreign policy with China and how he continuously promotes the improvement of Japan-China relationship.”
    The author mentions “Abe will have to find ways in his newly strengthened position to inculcate stability and predictability into the Japan-US alliance and his relationship with Trump” and he says Abe can do that by actively seeking out new partners that can bring their comparative advantages to these nascent institutions. I thought China has the potential to be one of the new partners because Prof. Kouketsu evaluates like that. Although however, it has a positive point with the trade or some aspects, mainly historical problems makes China difficult to be a new strength for Japan. As the people of Japan, we have to see the government’s attitude or movement against foreign countries more because Trump’s conservative attitude, rising superpower of China, and North/South Korean movement affect our country and we cannot stand the position in Asia Pacific region which we took so far anymore.

  11. Brittany A says:

    Japan is joining the list of countries that Trump accuses of taking advantage of the United States. It is in Japan’s best interest to keep the United States as a strong ally, especially with Russia, China, and North Korea only being a stone throw away. Therefore, Prime Minister Abe should collaborate with Trump instead of playing a game of chicken. Japanese automakers make better cars than American manufacturers and half of them are built in the United States, although no politician would openly admit that, so it is in America’s best interest to not impose tariffs on auto imports from Japan. I recommend that the best course of action is for Japan to bite the bullet and agree to buy more U.S. products, such as soybeans to help American farmers who are currently losing out from China, their largest purchaser. Their other option is to copy China’s actions and retaliate dollar-for-dollar, which I agree is inefficient, but would still make Trump feel as if he accomplished something. Trump is trying to win his re-election bid by appealing to his voter base, many of which are in favor of a nationalistic, protectionist agenda. Therefore, Abe must balance cooperating with Trump’s personal demands to keep the United States as an ally, while also ensuring that Japan takes as little of an economic hit as possible.

  12. Saki says:

    PM Abe, as who governs Japan for such a long time, should reconsider Japan’s IR that has been relied upon the US. And I think he and Japan should have closer relationships with China and India.
    Of course I know Japan and China have some definitely “difficult” historical problems and not small amount of people are against the close relationship with each other. However, considering China’s growth of economy and technology, it must be much more powerful. So Japan will not be able to ignore the power in the really close future.
    And also for India, many Japanese international companies have a lot of Indian managers as their business leaders. I realized this through my job hunting and were surprised actually. Thus I think India is also a new power and Japan should create more strong relationship with India too.

  13. Keita Ishizuka says:

    I also have the idea that political stability in Japan is essential in today’s world. Abe administration is significant in terms of their stability now that today world politics is moving; especially in developed countries, lots of internal issues like immigration, radical right party, emerge. Unlike those countries, PM Abe can spare larger resources for diplomacy, enjoying internal peace in politics (Some says Abe-Gaiko 安倍外交, PM Abe’s diplomacy, which proves that he puts importance on that). Its continuity for the diplomacy effort fruits in the influence of the Japan in the global politics. For example, Japan-EU EPA is one of the biggest Abe-Gaiko achievement (the negotiation started in 2013, in Abe administration).

    At the same time, this stability provides the rare chance to indicate the Japan’s existence in the global politics. For the past decade, there is no foreign policy of Japan due to the PM frequent change. The stability provides continuity and coherence. They appeal well for the global politics.

    However, we cannot always be optimistic, because some complexed issues lies in as the reading pointed. Especially in my idea, the key is the relationship with Trump USA since Japan’s security in terms of military force depends on the US force. Therefore, if the relation between Japan and USA goes bad even in other domain such as economics of trade, it will be the big issues in terms of the traditional security, especially against North Korea and China.

    Of course Japan-US relation is essential, but we can find the ways to certify our economic security to other states. For example, ASEAN countries are tradionally pro-Japanese countries, and they are in the middle way of development. If Japan can construct the economic win-win relationship with them, it will be the pressure in regional level, particularly on China. It can be the economic security.

  14. SH says:

    Japan is in a very difficult place. With their tense relations with the Koreas and China, it makes it difficult to find peace amongst themselves. As the US has shifted its focus on domestic issues, it has put Japan in a tough spot. I don’t think we’ll be seeing improved relations with the other Asian countries in a long time for Japan. China, Korea and Japan has had tensions for quite a while, which has stemmed from long historical tragedies and events, but because these nations hold a nationalistic pride, it makes it difficult for true peace to occur and trust issues brew amongst themselves. Japan seems to be in a spot in which a threat can launch at them at any moment. Although the US may seem to be a good option for Japan to align with, the US has their own concerns. I do agree that Japan should seek for other alliances and enhancing cooperation.

  15. Garrett C says:

    With Abe’s extension locked in until 2021, he can now turn his full attention towards furthering his political campaign. Before that though he needs to make sure that he maintains a certain level of communication and bargaining power with the United States. Following the meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, many of Abe’s opposition are critical of his lack of presence at the negotiating table. What’s more, Trump’s decisions have caused old fears rooted in distrust and apprehension to surface once more. One American complaint since the Cold War is that Japan has been freeriding on the back of the United States after refusing to build up its military capabilities. Instead, it chose to feign passivism and direct funds towards boosting its economy and innovative status. While this was all good and well at the time, the repercussions of that decision are boiling to the point where they can no longer be avoided. With no nuclear weapons or significant offensive military capabilities, Japan cannot easily force the hand of North Korea to cooperate and will mean that Japan will not be consulted on any immediate military decisions. Now, with the state of uncertainty with United States relations, Japan is being pressed more than ever to form new relations and explore options with powers like Australia. Yet, no country comes close to the influence of the United States except perhaps China. If Japan could stabilize relations with China this would change the geopolitical landscape, however at this stage in time it does not seem realistic as that would mean further angering Washington. In other words, unless Japan is prepared to take a strong stance against China, it is at the mercy of Trump’s whims and should prepare for a dramatic change and possibly even severing of relations with the US in the future. Still, although the situation is challenging, it is not impossible to overcome if Japan acts with haste and makes its intentions clear. I am curious to see how relations between the United States and the Asia-Pacific region will play out, as it seems new steps are being taken each day.

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